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Four-day weeks and the freedom to move anywhere: Companies are rewriting the future of work (again)

As omicron spreads, more companies are adopting creative approaches and using technology to help mitigate workplace inequity

(Washington Post illustration)
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The traditional idea of going to the office five days a week or working 9 to 5 may be dying. Some companies are making room for more creative and flexible approaches to getting workers to do their jobs.

Zoom, which many workplaces and workers relied on during the pandemic, is starting to allow its more than 6,000 workers to choose whether to work in the office, work remotely, or go hybrid, as in working remotely a certain number of days per week or month at their choosing. Bolt, a San Francisco-based e-commerce start-up boldly introduced a permanent four-day workweek for its nearly 600 employees. Workplace communications platform Slack is reimagining its office primarily as a gathering place for meetings and projects. And tech giants Amazon and Salesforce are allowing their employees to decide as a team when and where they should work, based on the projects at hand.

Corporate America is coming around to remote work. But more big changes lie ahead.

These approaches come as companies rethink workplace policies amid the fast spread of the omicron variant and the “Great Resignation,” during which employers are finding it more difficult to retain talent. U.S. office occupancy dipped to about 28 percent during the third week of January, compared to 40 percent in November before the massive spread of the omicron variant, according to building security company Kastle Systems. Still, some employers see this as an opportunity to rethink the way employees have traditionally worked, opting for even more flexible and creative arrangements that are more likely to lure and retain workers.

“People were feeling like [the pandemic] was settling down, and then omicron reared its ugly head and threw companies backward,” said Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “There’s a lot to be worked out for an organization.”

But as with any big change, companies that don’t take a measured approach to implementing their policies could unintentionally exacerbate employee inequity, Woolley said. For example, if a company asks employees to pick two days in which they’ll work from the office, the result could be that some employees never get the opportunity to work together, Woolley said. It also may not be conducive to employees’ work, which may need more or less collaboration days. And it could ultimately make the workplace less equitable if managers let face time play a role in evaluations.

“It’s the worst of both worlds,” she said.

The hybrid office is here to stay. The shift could be more disruptive than the move to all-remote work.

Woolley said workplaces can alleviate some of these issues by focusing on workplace practices that allow for the exchange of information without requiring people to attend meetings. Task tracking tools like MeisterTask and GitLab can aid in creating spaces for brainstorming and discussion, without exhausting employees with another video conference, she said.

Zoom said its new work arrangement, unveiled earlier this week, gives employees the power to choose how they want to work. The policy won’t depend on a worker’s previous setup, and employees can alter their choices if they change their mind. Zoom said its approach was based on feedback from employees, customers and peers, who largely said they wanted flexibility and choices.

Kelly Steckelberg, Zoom’s chief financial officer, said many employees, including herself, relocated during the pandemic and that the company will not require them to move back. Some workers relocated to be close to their families or to places where they might want to buy property or start a family, so Zoom, which hadn’t previously announced any return-to-office plans, wanted to make sure employees continued to have flexibility with how they lived.

“The flexibility we’ve had over the past years … has really sustained us in what otherwise was a difficult time,” she said.

Future of Work: Requiring workers to return to the office is a ‘doomed approach’

But Steckelberg said in light of the new policy, Zoom plans to implement new training for managers to make sure the workplace is equitable, regardless of who returns to the office and who chooses to work remotely. If managers host a team lunch, for example, they opt for in-office catering versus dining at a restaurant so that they can include remote workers via Zoom in a conference room. Zoom also will be leaning on its own technology — like its “smart gallery” feature that separates in-room participants into individual tiles on the screen — to make the workplace inclusive.

The company said it currently doesn’t have plans to adjust employees’ salaries, as Facebook-parent Meta has done, based on their geographic location.

Bolt, meanwhile, said it wanted to make a radical change in how its employees worked. So the company, which already allows for permanent remote work, adopted a permanent four-day workweek at the beginning of the year to address two big goals: to increase employee productivity and reduce burnout. To help workers prioritize work, increase efficiency in meetings and with tasks, Bolt says it uses project management software Asana to promote “writing over talking.” The tool allows teams to break down projects into tasks, assign tasks and keep teams updated on progress or leave additional notes.

“We knew this was a fundamental change in how we work,” said Jennifer Christie, Bolt’s chief people officer. “So you work with your manager to only focus on things with the biggest impact and cut out the rest.”

Christie said after piloting the policy last year, 91 percent of managers and 94 percent of employees wanted to continue. They also reported increased productivity and better work-life balance. Meanwhile, the start-up has been inundated with resumes and emails from people interested in working for the company, Christie said.

“People want to be empowered and have autonomy to do work in a way that fits them,” Christie said. “That’s going to be where talent is attracted.”

Dannel Jurado, a member of Kickstarter United, which is part of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, echoed Christie’s sentiment. He said when Kickstarter went fully remote and chose to get rid of its Brooklyn headquarters last year, not all workers were happy, especially since the office was equipped with a theater and a rooftop garden and was located near a river.

“We’ve talked about it to death,” Jurado said. “But it’s one of those things where everyone wants something a little different.”

The one thing the Kickstarter union workers agree on is the desire for the four-day workweek. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t listened to some recruiters from places that already implemented a four-day workweek,” Jurado said.

Whatever employers choose, they’ll probably have to face a stark reality created by the pandemic: Changes of some type may be needed to keep workers motivated.

“I’ve really learned how to value myself and my work,” said Jacklyn Reyna, a member of the nonprofit MOVE Texas’s union, who says a four-day workweek and other benefits is partially what keeps her at her current employer. “I don’t think it’d be hard for me to find another job.”

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